12 Hidden Signs You’re About to Get a Serious Sunburn
Certain medications, topical skin care products, and daily habits can make you more susceptible to a burn. Here’s how to keep your skin safe this summer.
You’re taking an antibiotic
One of the most common medications prescribed by dermatologists for acne is an antibiotic called tetracycline. It’s also one oral medication that makes skin more sun-sensitive and likely to burn, says Elizabeth K. Hale, MD, senior vice president at the Skin Cancer Foundation. Another antibiotic that leaves you sun-sensitive: Doxycycline, which people take for severe acne or Lyme disease. Before beginning a new medication, especially an antibiotic, ask your doctor or pharmacist if it comes with these skin side effects. Check out these weird ways your body changes after just a single sunburn.
You’re loving your new exfoliating mask
It’s nice to remove dead cells on the surface of your skin and reveal a more youthful glow underneath. The downside is that exfoliating away that layer removes natural sun protection, “rendering skin more sensitive to the sun,” says Kenneth Mark, MD, a cosmetic dermatologist and Mohs skin cancer surgeon practicing in New York City. Exfoliating masks, chemical peels, and microdermabrasion can all have this effect. If you use these products, double down on your commitment to applying sunscreen every morning.
You’re using a retinoid in summer
Prescription-strength retinoids can keep your pores clear and your skin healthy, but they can also make you more likely to burn. Going off them completely in the summer is one option, but it isn’t necessary. Instead, you can use an over-the-counter retinol (which is lower potency) during the warmer months, says Dr. Hale. But keep that sunscreen handy. “If you’re not going to wear sunscreen, you have no business using any of these in the summer,” she says. Don’t miss these 18 sunscreen mistakes you may be making.
You’re drinking a margarita
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Heading for an outdoor happy hour? Cover up if you’re ordering a margarita or vodka soda with lime. Lime or citrus juices can trigger a phototoxic reaction, says Michele Farber, MD, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. This happens when certain chemicals (like those in citrus) are activated by the sun and damage skin—you could end up with discoloration on your lips or hands. “This is something I see when people come back from summer vacation,” Dr. Farber says.
Your SPF is too low
It may surprise you to learn that an SPF 15 shields against 95% of UVB rays, while an SPF 30 is effective against 97 or 98%, says Dr. Hale. That two to three percent matters. “Everyone under-applies,” she says. (You should apply a shot glass-sized amount to your whole body.) That’s why Dr. Hale recommends patients use an SPF 30 or 50, as higher numbers will help make up for not applying enough, she says. Before you buy, decode sunscreen label lingo with this guide.
You forgot to reapply sunscreen
Fun in the sun means reapplying SPF every two hours; even more often if you’re sweating or swimming, says Dr. Mark. As the New York Times explains, it’s not because sunscreen breaks down over a certain period of time, but because people don’t put on enough in the first place. Reapplying regularly helps buffer that blunder and ensure skin has the protection it needs. If you forget to reapply and get a nasty sunburn, try one of these unusual sunburn remedies that actually work.
You believe clouds protect you from the sun
On a cloudy day, you don’t really need the SPF, right? After all, your skin doesn’t feel like its sizzling when you’re out. Wrong. “Clouds offer a false sense of security. You can still burn on cloudy days,” says Dr. Mark. Indeed, 40 percent of UV rays penetrate through clouds, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. “What’s worse, you may feel less hot and stay exposed longer than you otherwise would,” Dr. Mark says. Break out that SPF no matter what.
You’re heading to the beach at noon
Nothing like a beach day! But consider going earlier or later—or at least packing a beach umbrella. It’s best to stay out of the sun when rays are the strongest—between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., says Dr. Farber. If you’re out, practice all the key sun safety habits, like wearing at least an SPF 30 sunscreen and reapplying it every two hours. Seek shade and wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses for added protection. While you’re at it, watch out for these scary diseases you can catch at the beach.
You’re using spray sunscreen
Ever get home and notice a weird zigzag sunburn pattern on your back? Blame your spray sunscreen. Although convenient, spray sunscreens make it too easy to miss spots or entire sections. One way to get around it: “If you use a spray, make sure you rub it in thoroughly,” says Dr. Farber. Dermatologists prefer cream formulas—here’s how to find the best option for you.
That sunscreen expired
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Ideally, if you’re applying the right amount, a bottle of sunscreen shouldn’t last beyond a season anyway. Another reason not to have leftovers? Sunscreen does expire. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the FDA requires that all sunscreens are good for three years; beyond that, they may not protect you. Before applying that old bottle, look for the expiration date—if it’s past its prime, throw it out.
You’re having a celery snack
Just like citrus can cause skin reactions triggered by the sun, so too can celery, according to DermNet NZ. The good news for you is that, as the site mentions, the risk is biggest for food canners and food store workers. Still, if you’re having it as a snack outside, it’s good to be aware that the possibility exists.
You used essential oils this morning
It’s not just what you eat: Some essential oils contain chemical compounds that make a sunburn more likely, according to the American College of Healthcare Sciences. They’re often the citrus oils, including bergamot peel, grapefruit peel, lime peel, and lemon peel. The health organization advises avoiding direct sun exposure for a minimum of 12 hours after using. “Do not use these oils at all if there is any chance of being exposed to UV light,” they write on their website. These are the myths about sunburn that are damaging your skin.
Don’t fear the sun
Yes, there are a dozen things on this list that can prime you for a sunburn—a very unpleasant, not to mention dangerous, outcome. But it does you no good to fear the sun—summer offers plenty of opportunities to get out, enjoy the fresh air, and be more active. “Live your life—just make sure you’re covering your skin appropriately,” says Dr. Farber. Next, learn the sunscreen dos and don’ts dermatologists wish you knew.